Hello and welcome! I greet you tonight at a pivotal moment in your journey as parents, as you consider where to establish a community for your child for the formative educational years of their life. You are here tonight weighing how best to nurture the spirit and possibility contained within your child, this part of yourself who not a blink ago was a baby swaddled in your arms.
And of course, you are doing this work at a particularly challenging moment in which to be a parent. In the second half of the 20th century parenting became a domain of expertise, a science with an entire literature behind it. You have likely read a number of books written by benevolent doctors who attempt to explain your child’s brain or behavior to you. I certainly have. I like to begin open houses with this graph, of the incidence of the word “parenting” in English language books from 1900 to 2000, which is a flat line at zero until about 1970, at which point it spikes, and continues to grow.
It is enough to make one worry, all those books. And of course, we worry not just about how best to parent our children, but also about the world our children will inherit. Last year at this time we were reeling from an endless parade of supersized natural disasters. This year we are reeling from anti-Semitic violence and the continued erosion of our civil society. I don’t know about you, but it can be hard not to despair in moments such as these, hard not to look at my kids and wonder what of this beautiful world and great democratic experiment will be left for them. But then I spend time in a bright and colorful kindergarten classroom, or I get a note from a student thanking me for being “really nice to other kids,” and referring to me as a “fellow student,” and I am reminded of the human capacity for creativity, connection, and kindness.
My journey to becoming a fellow Brandeis student began about a decade ago, when I was working at an independent school in Palo Alto, during a time when there were a rash of suicides by young people, kids from some of the top-performing and best-resourced schools in the country. I couldn’t help but wonder: what are we missing? What are we not giving these children, in the model of education as we currently practice it? My own answers to those questions led me to seek a school community that would hold a child’s spirit with at least the same care as it held their test scores—but it wasn’t until a few years ago that I found there was research happening that had a similar thesis.
Dr. Lisa Miller, a professor of psychology at Columbia University, has been researching the impact of spirituality on child development, and what she has found is telling: adolescents who describe themselves as having an authentic sense of spiritual connection are 80% less likely than their peers to abuse drugs and alcohol and 60% less likely to suffer from major depressive disorders. Authenticity seems to be the key in her research—kids must understand this connection as being true to who they are, which is why our program invites students to develop their own approach to Jewish spirituality. For the past two years Brandeis has been working as one of fourteen leadership schools in the Collaborative for Spirituality in Education, convened by Dr. Miller at Teacher’s College. As part of that project we are creating a set of curricula and best practices related to spiritual identity and civic and ecological engagement. For Dr. Miller and for all of us in the Collaborative, the connection between spirituality and ethics is central—the subtitle of the project is “educating for a more democratic and ecological society.”
At Brandeis, we put the connection between ethics and spirituality as one of our three foundational beliefs that begin our vision for our school, Brandeis 2023, the strategic plan that will guide our next five years. Those beliefs are that all students deserve a school that stretches, supports, and inspires them; that children make meaning through thoughtful and critical engagement with their world; [Slide 6.2] and that the challenges of this century will require ethically-fluent and spiritually grounded leaders. However you define those challenges—economic, political, ecological, social—our responses to them will be stronger if the next generation of leaders knows themselves, knows their own moral compass and the depth of their connection to one another.
This runs counter to some of the current thinking. If the leaders of our great companies cannot themselves be ethical actors, the thinking goes, we will bring in chief ethics officers, to ask the hard questions, to consider the consequences. But ethical behavior is not compliance; nor are ethics about being audited by some external force. One of the reasons I believe that Jewish communities have thrived in the United States is because Jewish tradition and our foundational national principles converge on the core capacity of the individual to effect change as part of a greater whole—that each of us, as human beings and as citizens, has a voice, has a spark, is a leader. Justice Louis Brandeis, our school’s namesake, said that the most important political office in a democracy is that of the private citizen. If we outsource ethics, the power of that office is diminished.
I would contrast that position with the one taken last week by Twilio Chief Executive Officer (and Brandeis parent) Jeff Lawson, who wrote in a powerful piece on Medium about the business ethics in the current national climate. Quote
That’s why we at Twilio banned not just hate speech, but any organization whose primary purpose is spreading hate. It’s in our control to decide who uses our product, and from whom we take money. We choose not to profit from this hatred, or those who spread it.
This seems such an obvious position for every company to take, but anyone paying attention to the news could tell you it is not. We need more leaders willing to stand up for our shared humanity. And we need everyone, at every level of business and government, to consider the greater good in their decision making, whether those decisions impact the coding of an autonomous car, how we define a human being, or how our actions today will impact our children’s children. And so here at Brandeis we tell our students: you are a leader, you are a changemaker, you have a voice. And we ask them: what makes you feel connected? what brings you joy? what do you love? We ask them: what in your world needs repairing?
I want to close with part of a poem by the great American poet Brenda Hillman, from her 2013 collection Seasonal Works with Letters on Fire. She writes:
How will you be known? Some
registered complaints. You passed them
in the hallway, their new haircuts.
The bosses are known by new wars.
What salmon are left hurry upstream—
cold swaths in the bay. Linnets, by
rose fire at the edges […]
the moon rests in a mantle
of minutes, its boundaries in back
of the trees. Boundaries
are known by their nothings—;
you will be known by your dreams.
This is our aspiration for our children, for our model of a spiritually grounded and ethically engaged education: to empower these future leaders in their whole beings, to celebrate their possibilities and truths, to know them by their hopes and their dreams.
I want to thank you for being here with us tonight as part of this journey. Up next, you are going to be moving across the hall to CREATE, to build your own celebration of your child’s possibilities and truths.